The Fog of War
RUSI Journal, Apr 2004, Vol. 149, No. 2
By Douglas Hurd
The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons fromthe Life of Robert S McNamara
A ﬁlm by Errol Morris Columbia Tristar Films/Sony Pictures Classics
There is one proposition about war with which all servicemen would agree, namely that it must not be taken for granted. Leaders are only justified in launching a war if they are clear in their own minds about the real nature of war and its likely consequences in that particular case. In my experience servicemen have nothing but contempt for the kind of politician or journalist whom Kipling described as ‘jelly bellied flag flappers’. These men call for more bombs and more killing essentially because of the excitement which they cause. Servicemen are bound by obedience, but in a democracy they do not cease to be citizens. Before they are sent to kill and be killed they are entitled to know that there has been a full public discussion of the cause and a full weighing of the relevant arguments.
Such a discussion requires a background of history and well founded debate. That is why the film ‘The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S McNamara’ is welcome – for its own sake as a vivid creation and because of the parallels we can draw between the decisions here described by Robert McNamara and the decisions which face our leaders today. Eighty-eight years old this June, McNamara dominates the screen for most of the 100 minutes of the film. The director subtly interleaves passages of autobiography with McNamara’s musings and commentary on particular decisions. We thus build up a self portrait of a persistent, highly intelligent young man who moved from university to the Second World War and back again, was snapped up by Ford and helped to introduce seat belts and meet the challenge from Volkswagen.
Within a few weeks of becoming the company’s president he was summoned by John F Kennedy to be Secretary for Defense, holding this post for a crowded and dramatic seven years.
But it is the debate rather than the autobiography which makes the film. Bob McNamara draws eleven lessons from his experiences. Anyone expecting a clear cut intellectual outcome has failed to notice the title of the film.
The moral and intellectual fog into which Bob McNamara leads us is not the result of senile feebleness of mind. There is subtle wisdom and moral sensitivity here; it is just that not all the lessons point in the same direction. Those who have actually had to wrestle with these problems of peace and war, albeit on a much smaller scale, should feel sympathy rather than scorn for his occasional confusions. That is what it is all about.
For example, McNamara spends time at the beginning describing the brutal firebombing of Japanese cities by conventional means under the orders of General Curtis Le May in the last weeks of the Second World War, just before the two nuclear bombs brought that war to an end. 100,000 Japanese civilians were killed. The camera shows us something of what that meant in misery and devastation; the commentary describes what the corresponding destruction would have been in American cities had the roles been reversed. Curtis Le May remarked at the time that if the Americans had lost the war he would have been arraigned as a war criminal. So one of McNamara’s lessons is that proportionality in war is necessary. Yet a little later on another of his lessons is that you must be prepared to do evil in order to achieve good. Measuring that evil against that good is the crux of the debate.
Of course a large part of the film is about Vietnam. The critique of Lyndon Johnson is merciless without being crude. McNamara avoids any open condemnation but believes that if Kennedy had lived events would have been very different. The clips show Johnson, in phrases sadly familiar to us from the White House today, proclaiming that the war was being fought to safeguard the freedom of Vietnam, and after each setback that the military situation was steadily improving. McNamara’s dialogue with the President over the years is sketched to convey the impression, not entirely convincing, that at each stage the Secretary of Defense tended to oppose further troop deployments, pointed out that the war was going badly, and urged that there should be a diplomatic as well as a military component of policy.
There is no disguising the disaster. But McNamara declines to condemn the President or apologize for the war, even when urged to do so by the film’s director Errol Morris, whose interviews with McNamara form the primary thrust of ‘The Fog of War’. Nothing would be gained, he says, by entering into that argument again, although in fact he has just done so with mixed results.
He twice makes a point which is particularly American. He describes himself as the servant of the President. The President is, in the end, the man who decides. It has been notable in recent months how close our own Prime Minister has come to asserting that position for himself here. I hope his frequent use of the first person singular does not mean that we have moved away from the British concept of collective Cabinet responsibility in matters of war and peace. That concept does not exist in the United States, where the authority of the President is essentially lonely. On the other hand the Americans have entrenched more clearly than ourselves the concept of congressional or parliamentary approval for war. The House of Commons did approve the Iraq war after a tense and well-argued debate. Now a Commons Select Committee has recommended, rightly, that this precedent should in future be made compulsory by Statute.
McNamara does not apply his lessons to the controversies of the present day. Yet clearly Errol Morris aimed to create these parallels in our mind. For example, one of McNamara’s lessons is the need to empathize with the enemy. Kennedy judged Khrushchev right in the Cuba crisis because he had at his elbow Ambassador Thompson who knew the man well. By contrast he argues that the Americans never understood the North Vietnamese. Until he went there after the war in 1995 McNamara did not realize that the domino theory was nonsense. He then learned some history. Given that the Vietnamese and Chinese were traditional enemies there was never any possibility of the Vietnamese allowing themselves to be used as tools of communist expansion through Asia at the behest of Chairman Mao or indeed of the Kremlin. Several times McNamara said ‘nobody understood what it is out there’, in terms which American spokesmen have had to imitate recently as the insurgency refused to die down in central Iraq.
Another crucial lesson is that we see what we want to see. We draw from what we think we see the conclusions which we find attractive. The first attack on American warships in the Gulf of Tonkin convulsed American thinking. Yet according to McNamara the attack simply did not take place. There were no torpedoes, just jittery sailors manning the sonar equipment. The same state of mind in our time produced the fantasy of weapons of mass destruction and the less forgivable fantasy of Saddam Hussein’s connection with Al-Qa’ida. Without any conscious wish to deceive, those concerned allowed their beliefs to misinterpret the evidence before them.
With his sleek hair, rimless glasses and apparently mechanical intelligence, McNamara when in power was described as ‘IBM on legs'. What is added now in old age is a melancholy smile, a willingness to admit mistakes and a very human uncertainty about the great questions put to him. This may be largely because he realizes now, and indeed states several times in the film, something which perhaps escaped him at the time, namely that the crucial feature of war is that people are killed. In the end all the problems at which he was expert, of weaponry, logistics and strategic doctrine, are subordinate to that fact.
The realization does not make McNamara a pacifist. It does not even convince him that the Vietnam War was necessarily wrong. But the thought dominates the film. We all, and perhaps Americans in particular, are meticulous about counting our own dead.We are not so good at counting or remembering those whom we kill. We are not clear whether we have killed ten or twenty thousand Iraqis, though the figure of course creeps up every day as we try to fulfil our obligation as an occupying power to deliver security.
The numbers in Vietnam were hugely greater on both sides. But the balance which has to be struck remains the same. Neither the Iraqi nor the Vietnamese dead can express their conclusions in opinion polls, but neither can they be forgotten. The essential question returns: how much evil is one entitled to do in the search for a good objective? The Fog of War
brings us repeatedly face to face with this necessary but tormenting question.
Rt Hon Lord Hurd of Westwell was Foreign Secretary from 1989 to 1995. His memoirs were recently published by Little Brown
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